Ring them bells: more Times a-Changing than religious treatise

By Tony Attwood

“Ring Them Bells” is considered by many as the best song on Oh Mercy – which given that many people think Oh Mercy was the best album since Desire, means it ought to be good.

It’s a ballad, a hymn, a religious treatise, an abstract painting, or an update on Times they are a Changing, you take your pick.  But whatever else it is, it is certainly a less heavily produced song than much of the rest of the album.  And a song with a unique cascading piano part which defines the music from the start.  A cascade that appears as Bob starts singing and gives us the impression of the bells, without being so naff as to have bells being played.  (That would have been awful!).

I might be wrong on this, but I am not sure Bob’s ability as a pianist would allow him to play or write that cascade.  It’s not that complex, but it is not the sort of thing I’ve not noticed him do anywhere else, and I wonder what came first, the cascade or the song.  Did Bob write a simplified version, and then hand it on?

But whatever way it happened that piano part at the opening of the first line defines the bells and the song.

The track is well sung on the album too – but it is open to reinterpretation.  If you don’t know it, try playing the album and then immediately follow it with (for example), the Supper Club live versions in 1993 which are considered by Heylin as the best moment from the Never Ending Tour.  (I don’t agree with this at all, for me it was the re-interpretation of Desolation Row as a dance piece, but he’s been to infinitely more gigs than I have, so I bow to him on this one).  But certainly if you choose to go to You Tube for one of the Supper Club concerts, you will get a treat  – especially if your knowledge of the song is limited to Oh Mercy and maybe the two disc version of Tell Tale Signs.  (The limited edition three disc version had another approach to Ring them bells on the final extra disc.)

There’s no doubt that as a piece of music it works beautifully – the melody just gives us the chords, the chords give us the melody – one of those beautiful songs where everything seems to fit so naturally together, rather than have any feeling that the composer was searching to find a way, any way, to end a line or make a rhyme.

There’s no hint of blues anywhere, where unusual chords are thrown in, as in the middle 8, they have nothing to do with the blues genre.  Rather they are stretching the song to see just how far it can go, and the answer is always… a very very long way.   This is a very unusual musical approach for Dylan.

Indeed given all the argument about the production that was put into Oh Mercy, and how much Daniel Lanois changed the essence of Dylan’s work during production,  Live At the Supper Club 1993  which has Dylan alongside Tony Garnier, Winston Watson, John Jackson and Bucky Baxter, does show another side to the piece.  But also it is still the same piece, with the same essence of meaning.

The song also has some of the lines that are oft-quoted by those who like to quote Dylan – the lines about the “blind and the deaf,” in verse two.  And of course it gives a mountain’s worth of support to those who believe that even after the religious orientated trilogy Dylan was still serving the Lord, still believed in the literal Revelation of St John, and was still waiting for the chosen ones to rule those who managed to make it through the apocalypse.

This religious feeling is enhanced by some excellently chosen references.   The Unesco world heritage site, The Sacred Monastery of the God-Trodden Mount Sinai, also known as St Catherine’s is a staggering place to visit, (although please don’t take that to mean that you should plan a trip there just now; personally I’d stay very much on my side of the Mediterranean just now).  After she was beheaded the angels took her remains to Mount Sinai where they were indeed discovered about 1300 years ago.

If you ever do see it I am sure you will see what I mean in terms of it being a fit into “the city that dreams/Ring them bells from the sanctuaries/Cross the valleys and streams”.

But I wonder… is this all really meant to tell us anything literally.  And then I wonder, is this really a religious song at all?

Consider for a moment St Catherine, St Peter and Sweet Martha.  If we are looking for literal meanings the issue must be “why those three?”   We can all find explanations for each, but all three in one song?   True, we also have a reference to The Chosen Few  – which could take us to the Saints who will judge the world at the end of time (I could show off and say Revelations 20:4, but that would just be showing off), but then again why those three people, in this context.

The problem is as fast as we try and track down one reason for a reference to be there, the others fall out of sync with it.   Which leads me to see these references as in fact half references; reflections placed throughout the song as much for the sound of the words as any symbolism or direct pointing in any direction.

Indeed when it comes to how religious the piece is, I keep coming back to the 1997 interview for The New York Times, just four years after the Supper Club recordings, where Dylan said, “This is the flat-out truth: I find the religiosity and philosophy in the music. I don’t find it anywhere else. Songs like “Let Me Rest on a Peaceful Mountain” or “I Saw the Light”—that’s my religion. I don’t adhere to rabbis, preachers, evangelists, all of that. I’ve learned more from the songs than I’ve learned from any of this kind of entity. The songs are my lexicon. I believe the songs.”

In reaching back to that comment I expect I have been influenced by the fact that I started writing this review on the 70th anniversary of VE Day – the day the second world war in Europe ended with the unconditional surrender of Germany.

One of the many, many points about this day – particularly for those of us whose ancestors were lost in the war – is that during the war church bells in Britain didn’t toll.   VE Day was the day on which every single church bell in the kingdom tolled – as they did again for the 70th anniversary.

Such events can be incredibly moving, and heighten an awareness of one’s country’s history, the sacrifices of one’s ancestors, and the deep and rich symbolism of church bells tolling.   And it is that which I take from this song.  Not detailed references to future events foretold in the Bible.

So I really can’t see that this is a song regretting the decline of religious belief, nor even a criticism of the leaders of Christianity who have a far lesser influence on the lives of everyday people than was so in previous centuries.   Indeed even the opening lines give us confusion…

Ring them bells, ye heathen
From the city that dreams
Ring them bells from the sanctuaries
’Cross the valleys and streams
For they’re deep and they’re wide
And the world’s on its side
And time is running backwards
And so is the bride

Of course it can be argued that Dylan has Joel 3:11 at the back of his mind

Assemble yourselves, and come, all ye heathen, and gather yourselves together round about.

But here’s another view.  I’ve always thought that “all ye heathen” line sounds quite a bit like

Come gather round people where ever you roam.

You see I think that manipulating lines from the King James Bible doesn’t actually mean that Dylan is making direct references to God that he wants us to acknowledge and obey.  After all, if Dylan wants to tell us to be good Christians, he does it directly and tells us to Serve Somebody.

To take a literal approach you need to explain why where and when the heathens should ring the church bells.  If you want to know, I can show you.  Just go to any of the bell ringing societies that we have all over the UK where the art of bell ringing, rather than the religious context of bell ringing, is practiced.

Dylan is using all his regular sources, and coming up with “the world’s on its side” in the track after telling us “everything is broken” and that really ought to be a fair old clue as to what is going on here.  The heathens are in the church ringing the bells, the world’s gone wrong, and while the film of the bride walking across the churchyard into the church for her wedding is running backwards in a final surreal twist.   The world is upside down.

Yes of course you can argue that we are again back with Revelation in that the bride is the bride of Christ, but again I make the point, when Dylan wants to tell us to become Christians, he doesn’t muck about with half images.   When he wants to paint an abstract painting on a religious theme, then he does it with half references, and accumulated but disconnected images, which he does here.

True, the second verse (Ring them bells St. Peter) sounds at first like it is a call to arms for the church, but everything depends on how you interpret the final two lines…

And the sun is going down
Upon the sacred cow

A sacred cow, I need hardly remind you, in most conversations these days is not about a perception of the animal in certain religions, but rather something that is unreasonably considered immune from question or criticism.  “The sun is going down on the sacred cow” actually means, we are all questioning everything, we hold no idea as sacrosanct any more.

If I really wanted to take a meaning out of this verse, I’d say, “Question Everything.”   The contrary view is that it tells Christians to abandon modernity and get back to the simple life, but it just doesn’t seem to work for me either here, or in the context of Dylan’s wider body of writing.

Besides if simplicity was what Dylan really wanted to convey, wouldn’t he do it, not on a highly produced album, but on his own accompanied by an acoustic guitar?

So the word play goes on, and whatever meaning you put into the song the images are striking, and I must say, fun.

And the mountains are filled
With lost sheep

Then as we move on this song does sound like a latter day version of Times they are a changing, and Chimes of Freedom.

Ring them bells for the blind and the deaf
Ring them bells for all of us who are left

True, we then go back to “the chosen few” – but then we have already had the bells for everyone who is left, so it seems a case of inclusivity.

But if you want the religious interpretation then “Sweet Martha,” who was witness to the resurrection. Except I think she is a Saint.

(Incidentally one wonderful interpretation I came across, researching this song was that this refers to Martha, the daughter of Bob Crachit in Charles Dickens’ The Christmas Carol, with the poor man’s son being Tiny Tim, and once we get to this point I have to say once again, when Dylan wants to give us a clear message he gives us a clear message, whether it is in the religious albums or on Times they are a changing.  When he wants to attack someone he attacks that person with no holds barred.  (“You’ve got a lot of nerve to say...”)   And when he wants to paint an abstract picture he paints an abstract picture (Tombstone Blues).

So this song is an accumulation of images – we can look at them like we can look at a Jackson Pollock, and we can detect meanings and overall insights, just as we can with a painting, but trying to turn an individual line into something that clearly means x or y, is, for me, quite pointless.

I think (and of course it is just me) this is a collection of images that relates to the cascading sound of church bells, which as I mentioned at the start, the piano delivers under Dylan’s voice.  We have lines which are provocative and interesting and challenging, but they are not meant to be put together as a set of meanings that say, “Repent for the end is nigh”

Oh the lines are long
And the fighting is strong
And they’re breaking down the distance
Between right and wrong

Compare and contrast with

The line it is drawn the curse it is cast
The slow one now will later be fast
As the present now will later be past
The order is rapidly fadin’
And the first one now will later be last

Are we to say this is a direct call back to Matthew 20:16 (so the last will be first) or is it Dylan playing with images, exploring words, taking it all where it will go.

Poetry like this is as much about playing with words as it is about telling us to do this, not do that.  It expresses what non-poetic forms can’t express.   It is not always meant to be taken literally.

Perhaps the best way I can put this is carried on a t-shirt that I sometimes wear when I’m out dancing:

Poetry would be a lot harder if violets were orange

It can be deadly serious and insightful, it can be fun, it can make us sit up and take notice (Hollis Brown is a perfect example) and it can give us deeper insights into the human condition (Subterranean Homesick Blues does that I think).  But as often as not, it is not intended to be taken literally.

Ring them bells for me is an update on Times they are a changing and Chimes of Freedom.  Just like the bells in Britain on VE day, 1945 when the Nazis were finally stopped.

Don’t get misled by the saints and the quasi religious comments.  If Bob wanted to preach, he would preach, loud and clear.

Here’s he’s just giving us an update, and it is no worse a song for all that.

Index to all the songs reviewed on Untold Dylan

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2 Responses to Ring them bells: more Times a-Changing than religious treatise

  1. Bev Freeman says:

    Thorough, thoughtful, well written look at this song, which for some reason always causes me to envision St. Patrick’s cathedral in New York when the song begins. And in my mind this is an aerial view of the building. But I could never reconcile this with lost sheep….and now I understand the reference to the bride, and an update on Times they are a changin.’ Tony, you have given me a lot to think about. Thanks!

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